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The Only Path to Serenity Meaning (Lao Tzu Quote)

“Fill your bowl to the brim
and it will spill.

Keep sharpening your knife
and it will blunt.

Chase after money and security
and your heart will never unclench.

Care about people’s approval
and you will be their prisoner.

Do your work, then step back.
The only path to serenity.”

Lao Tzu

People mistakenly think that life’s biggest challenge is to work hard – it is not. Many people can muster the energy to work hard temporarily, especially when there is a valuable reward being dangled in front of them. Any animal can be trained to run faster that way.

Image result for dog race chasing targets

But as human beings, the objective is not to win a race – life is not a race, but more like a marathon. To sustain our pursuit, we cannot merely try hard, but we must try hard at the right things, and in the right amount, and we must know when to pause and reflect, and when to change course.

We have to contend with the reality of burnout – that, despite our best efforts, we may come to a point of total exhaustion, where we either have nothing more to give, or we become so numb and disenchanted with our chosen path, that we continue to work, but without relish, love, and passion.

How do we find the right balance? How do we transcend these psychological limitations?

Does Lao Tzu suggest that we should stop caring about what others think, to just do our work.

I don’t think anyone would seriously suggest that, and if they did, we would inherently smell the bullshit. It is very difficult to not care about what people think. For most of us, people define the meaning of our lives. And chasing after money and security is just good sense. And sharpening one’s sword is necessary if we are to improve at anything.

But I don’t think the message is to not care about these things at all, but it is not to chase after them. What does that mean?

When you chase after something, it becomes your sole focus. You block everything else out. When money is your goal, you may become blind to your social obligations. And if you chase after the approval of someone you care deeply about, you may miss out on opportunities to make money, or to improve.

Caring about something and chasing after something are different things.

I think the point here is to care about the only thing that matter: doing the work well.

When you work on your craft, and give it everything you have, when you try to create something valuable, you attract all the things you want – social approval, wealth and security, self-improvement – but without being blinded by any of them.

Being blinded by an external goal is not only bad because it makes you oblivious to other things, but it could even stop you from reaching the one goal you have chosen to chase after. But relentlessly working towards honing your craft is a pleasure in itself, it cannot burn you out, it can only give you more energy.

Think about the person who wants nothing but to become rich (an external goal). Every day, he wakes up, and he thinks about nothing but how to make money. He ignores his friends and family. He cultivates no skills, he ignores his health. All he wants is money.

But by thinking in this way, he does not develop the cognitive skills, and the emotional distance and perspective required, to find the ideal way to make that money. He may take a job he hates that will end up making him worse off financially, because he will eventually quit. He may get himself into a get rich quick scheme where he throws good money after bad. He may impatiently invest his money in day trading and develop an addiction that assures failure in the long term.

To step back means to have perspective. It means to focus on the one thing that matters, that combines all your goals, and is good for you. Even if it means moving slower, even if it means making many sacrifices, it is the only sustainable path you can take.

"A gilded No is more satisfactory than a dry yes" - Gracian

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